BP running out of options

2010-05-04 16:08

Port Fourchon – British Petroleum will resort to an unprecedented operation as it runs out of options to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil leak threatening an environmental disaster.

With the well spewing oil following a rig explosion two weeks ago, sending a giant slick toward the US southern coastline, the implications for the deep-water balancing act could not be higher.

BP officials acknowledge they do not know whether the operation will work.

And Gulf Coast residents will be watching closely, particularly fishermen and others who make a living off the water since their livelihoods are on the line.

"It's never been done in deep water before," said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles.

Funnel leaking oil

It involves dispatching a 98-ton structure – a 12.2m-tall steel container with a dome on top – toward the leak as early as Tuesday, according to Suttles. Welders rushed to finish it on Monday at an industrial yard in southern Louisiana.

One of three expected to be deployed; it is designed to funnel most of the leaking oil to a ship, the Deepwater Enterprise, on the surface if installed properly. There are a total of three leaks.

Even if successful, more work will still need to be done since the well will continue to leak. A relief well must be dug to allow the main well to be cut off, and work expected to last up to three months has already begun on it.

The huge oil slick, already created by the leak, continues moving toward the coast.

The container and dome are to be placed over the well's leaking riser pipe underwater, capturing a mixture of oil and water that will be separated once funnelled onto the ship.

Similar systems have been used before, but at far shallower depths.

Eric Smith, associate director of the Energy Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans, said the difficulty will involve connecting the dome to the ship with a carefully designed system that transports the oil and will not collapse.

"They're throwing everything at it and hoping one of these things are successful," said Smith. But he was hopeful, saying "the chances are better that it will work".

Another issue will be whether the pressure from the oil is strong enough to push the containment structure out of place, according to Scott Pegau from the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Alaska, created after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Big concern

"The big concern would be is there enough pressure from the oil coming out that it will be able to lift the dome off the floor?" he said.

An estimated 210 000 gallons of oil a day has been streaming from leaks at the well-head below the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank on April 22, making it among the largest spills in US history.

It has created a growing 200km by 110km slick that could wreak huge economic and environmental damage on the Gulf Coast, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Underwater dispersants released at the source of the leak appear to be having a positive effect, BP officials said, though they could not provide details since the depth makes observation difficult.

"The visibility isn't very good," said BP spokesperson John Curry.

BP is also still seeking to activate the well's blowout preventer, which failed for unclear reasons. The company has said the failure was unprecedented, and for that reason did not build dome containment structures in advance.

"It's just never happened," Curry said.

The explanation is not likely to reassure coastal residents. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has been among those harshly critical of BP, warning that the leak threatens his state's "way of life".